Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The quest for the perfect dual purpose chicken – and why we are raising them as dual purpose

When I was picking out our chicken breeds, I depended a lot on small chicken farmers who could compare and contrast different breeds from personal experience. That's how I landed on Barred Rock. I found a chicken farmer who raised a flock of Barred Rock and enjoyed their dual purpose use as well. But I couldn’t find anyone who had done both buckeye and other breeds and I couldn’t find anyone who had used them as dual purpose in this day and age. Buckeye were developed to be a superior meat breed while being dual purpose. They are currently endangered.

The Quest to find our perfect dual purpose chicken

You’ll have to understand our objective: we want a sustainable flock for our family homestead that can hatch its own chicks, reduce our chicken feed cost (forages), and that tastes as good as it can and grows to a reasonable size. They won’t be like Cornish Cross at the store – but we are okay with that. I like this old traditional chicken taste. We aren't trying to make money, we are trying to eventually save a little, raise it here in a kind way, and lessen time invested and start up cost each year. The only other breed I might be interested in is Jersey Giant which is another old meat chicken breed that was pushed out by the Cornish cross.

A word on Cornish Cross vs. dual purpose chickens:

I’ve read that you can strategically feed Cornish cross at certain times and withhold food so that they won’t grow so fast and they will be forced to forage. This might change feed to growth ratios that are at 2 lbs of feed = 1 lb of meat and you might end up with a smaller Cornish cross than you would otherwise get at 10-11 weeks. And reducing feed seemed like a game I was nervous to play without knowing if I would royally mess up the resulting price or size. They aren’t GM, they are hybrids and they are always hungry because they’re bodies are trying to grow so fast (butcher at 10-11 weeks instead of 24). They are such a hybrid that I couldn’t (easily) create, hatch, and raise them here and we are aiming to let a sustainable flock hatch our eggs for us and teach the chicks how to forage. Dual purpose breeds, like ours, are said to need 5 lbs of feed for 1 lb of meat – but I’m hoping that with the reduced cost by hatching our own, and a reduced feed by offering fodder, milk, and foraging, we can end up with a cheaper bird on the table. Theoretically, here is the comparison of a home hatched buckeye to a Cornish cross if you didn’t allow them to forage and fed them what they supposedly need to produce a 5lb bird (this doesn’t take into account housing etc.):

5lb Cornish cross:
$2.25 chick (according to McMurray on 25-49 birds) + vaccines if you would like
$4 feed (Our organic feed was a little over $20 for 50lb)

5lb dual purpose:
$0 chick (hatching our own)
$10 feed (without foraging)

So the hope is by that foraging, letting the chickens turn compost and take care of cow patties, and growing fodder instead of commercial grain, I’ll have a much cheaper home hatched bird. I’ve said before that I’m also planning to experiment with selectively hatching eggs based on shell shape to get mostly roosters when we are planning to use them for meat.

The ordered chicks!

This year:

This year was an experiment for us as we raised NH Red, Barred Rock and Buckeye side by side to compare their growth, taste, character, and heartiness and then stick with one or two breeds depending on how it turned out. The bird needed to be a good family homestead bird that has a good attitude – it wasn’t all about how big they got. I’ll tell you about how they all compared, what we learned, and how we did it in a little bit. First – Lets briefly talk about our favorite!

The Favorite Chicken!

When someone asks me about chicken breeds, I’m all about bragging on the buckeye. A lot of this has to do with my complete satisfaction on their dual purpose nature in that their roosters taste really yummy and grew the best out of all the breeds. But the other characteristics that are my favorite are these:

  • The roosters are beautiful! And I don’t mind their crow one bit. I’m told it is a lower pitch than other roosters and therefore doesn’t carry a far.
  • The roosters and hens look so different that you can easily tell them apart from a young age.
  • The roosters grew to a nice size much quicker than the NH Red and Barred Rock.
  • The ladies are very layed back and keep to themselves. They don’t run at me with excitement – which I don’t mind, but I’m enjoying these introverted chickens. Once you are close to them, they don’t mind in the least, but they aren’t pushy or aggressive towards us.
  • They love to forage on their own. Part of the hens not rushing to us is that they are satisfied with finding their own food instead of ditching the foraging the minute they see us in hopes that we have grain or treats. We’ve given them grain (organic) all their life just like the other chickens, but I think they actually prefer to forage over eating their grain!
  • The ladies act like ladies and I can only describe them as sweet. I haven’t handled them much, and don’t necessarily care to, I just need them not to be mean. Because of this, they’ve pecked at my boots, but not in a ferocious way like the NH Red, more in a “hey look, a wee bit of grain, I will delicately pick that off your boot now. Thank you”. Okay, maybe that was a slight exaggeration, but I’ve got nothing negative to say about the ladies.
  • The buckeye never push their way around the others. They seem to be patient.
  • Also, they are the only American “made” rooster to have a pea comb. They were created in Ohio, which also has a cold climate, and this small comb is better, in my opinion, because there is less to get frost bite!

Buckeye Rooster standing tall (back center) next to his hen. Illustrating their patience.
When the others go nuts trying to get to me through the fence, the Buckeyes mostly just hang out and watch.

Some “cons”:

  • The ladies are significantly smaller than the males at the age we ended up butchering them (22 weeks). They are comparable to the Barred Rock ladies we butchered at the same time. We kept two Buckey hens and within 4 weeks, I had wished we had waited to butcher them all because they must have gone through a growth spurt. So in the future, I’ll plan on 24 weeks or more before butcher.
  • I don’t know how many eggs they lay at all. I just can’t tell who lays what eggs when we have Barred Rock and NH Red in the coop too. The temperament, the dual purpose quality, the small comb for our cold area, their look, and their desire to forage are enough for me to stick with them even if they don’t lay as well as a Barred Rock. I’m hoping that their foraging means a lower feed bill and we hope to turn them into our compost turners in the spring.

Here is how this year's experiment played out:

We ordered 10 Buckeye straight run (male and female), 5 NH Red straight run, 5 NH Red pullets, 10 Barred Rock pullets and we were given a few extras. We raised them all in the chicken tractor after their brooder and time in the coop.

As you can already tell, this wasn’t comparing apples to apples. I didn’t have equal amounts of male and female, but I was still able to compare the rate of growth for females and the temperaments. And I don't have numbers for you because we don't have a scale and I wasn't so concerned with the price in the end since we already knew that this year would be more expensive. I enjoyed raising them all together like this, because we were able to choose the best ones out of all of them for the laying flock and the layer flock already knew each other and didn't have to go through the "pecking order".

We raised all the chickens in an 8x10 Salatin Style Chicken tractor and moved them all around the yard to give them new grass. This kept them clean, and gave them things to forage. As chicks, we immediately notices that the NH Red were more aggressive towards the others, and towards our hands when we were putting food in the brooder. Not mean, just aggressive and pushy. The Buckeye were growing the slowest.

The Barred Rock consistently stayed in the middle of growth for most of the growing out period. The NH Red shot up must faster than the rest. I started speculating that some of the Buckeyes looked bigger than other Buckeyes, even while they were still in the brooder – those would be the roosters.

When we put them outside in the chicken tractor, the NH Red were too aggressive for my preference. They pecked at our hands while lifting the door to feed them etc. There was one Barred Rock that was a sweetheart and let Noah carry it all around the yard after not being handled much for the whole of it’s life. The Buckeye ladies aren’t really lookers compared to Barred Rock, so I think we weren’t so eager to hold them, and at this point, I thought I preferred the Barred Rock by a long shot. That was until butcher day.

Getting bigger

The Barred Rock felt bigger, looked bigger, and seemed great all around. But they were really similar to the Buckeye ladies in size once they were butchered and they honestly look a lot wimpier. Their chest cavity was also bigger, so there ended up being less to them. Lesson learned: The Buckeye don’t have as many fluffy feathers, and are generally just as big as the other ladies they grew up next to. They might even have a smaller frame over all and have more meat on top of it.

This is a recent shot of our laying flock. The buckeye hens look like they might be rivaling the other hens in size now!

By butcher time, the NH Red roosters were bigger than all the hens, but not as big as the Buckeye, and their attitude lost favor for me entirely.

The empty chicken tractor
Taste compare: buckeye are better than barred rock. I don’t know if the NH Red are better, but I don’t care because they are mean and the point of my experiment was to find a sustainable flock bird that would fit here and allow us to hopefully hatch our own birds every year. NH Red don’t fit that bill because of their attitude. The Buckeye roosters were not noticeably aggressive in the chicken tractor.

Free Ranging this fall. Fluffy Barred Rock hen and a Buckeye Rooster.

What I’m hoping to do differently next year:

We are hoping to order another bunch of Buckeye chicks to transition our flock to all buckeye and maybe I’ll throw in some Jersey Giants after I do more research on them. But I’m planning to handle them a whole lot more. The chicken tractor is hard to do that with, so it might mean building another contraption eventually. I want to pick up the roosters as often as possible to see if I can get them to actually be friendly instead of tolerable. Our “free range” rooster is fine. But the coop rooster that is so big he doesn’t always make it over the 8ft fence is not friendly towards anyone other than Joel and I. And he isn’t "friendly" towards us, he just isn’t going to “bite” the hand that feeds him.

I’m hoping to raise the new chicks on milk and organic barley fodder. The fodder is going to be considerably cheaper and the milk will be a great addition when Buttercup starts milking.

The chicken tractor will be used, instead, to house the home hatched chicks when they get much larger and need to be separated from the layer flock. They should only be labor intensive towards the end of their life when we don't want to mistake a new chick for a layer and resort to separating and toting them around the yard in the tractor.

In conclusion:

Someday, we might start doing broilers or a “freedom ranger” variety, we aren't necessarily against them, but for now, getting rid of the start up cost is important. We need to keep driving our costs down and finding the cheapest and easiest ways that don’t sacrifice on our desired methods (pastured/grass fed foods/less labor intensive-ie. let the chickens raise the chicks).

We are a one income family and Joel works full time outside the home, so what we do can’t take a lot of time or money. We’ve been very selective about what we take on so far, and everything has a background of crunching numbers to make sure they work out to save us money in the short “long-run” and a background of making sure we knew of an "easy" way to do it.

So there you have it. Anyone else out there trying to be sustainable chicken raisers even to the point of home hatched chicks for meat?

Past chicken posts:
Choosing the right breed (at the end of the post): http://www.onbrowncroftacre.com/2013/04/the-basic-ingredients-that-make-life.html
A chick is hatched and pictures of the chicken tractor: http://www.onbrowncroftacre.com/2013/07/around-homestead-chickens-chick.html

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  1. Wonderful informative article - thank you - just an FYI: from what I have read chickens can not digest or tolerate milk products and it causes diarrhea with even small amounts. Just thought you should know that there is another train of thought out there about milk.

    1. Thank you for reminding me of that! It's funny, I read that information right after I posted this. I read something about clabbering the milk instead to make it digestible... I'll have to do more reading on that. I fed some of our chicks yogurt when they were dealing with pasty butt, and it seemed to help them a great deal. I had read that they aren't hatched with probiotics in their gut and would normally get their probiotics from pecking their mothers poo - so the introduction of a probiotic could be beneficial and the absence of one could be the cause of pasty butt. So much to learn!

  2. Just came across this. If you're looking for the perfect dual purpose bird, look for a high quality (not big hatchery) New Hampshire line. I have a fast growing line with huge roosters and hens that have been bred back to their original purpose (meat) while maintaining excellent egg laying characteristics. You just simply cannot get these lines from hatcheries anymore. My stud rooster is 11 lbs and gentle as a lap dog. If you're interested let me know!

  3. Hi! I am in Canada, I too have been looking for a great dual purpose. I have settled on Chanteclers. Buff and partridge, as they are more fun to look at then the whites! I have an unheated, insulated coop and these sweet, chatty hens lay all year long! They are excellent broody momma's, bred to be hardier, more disease resistant and weather tolerant. I have gone through 3 roosters in the 3 years, one somehow broke his neck in the coop, one I traded for a different colour. All these Roos have been very sweet and gentle. I have still got my original 3 hens, who are almost 5 years old now and still laying and brooding. they are a great meat bird! Only eaten the Roos though. They have a great size, very good IMO. I am adding some Wyandotte and Orpington hens to my flock this summer to see how the cross with the Chanteclers will turn out. So I am happy with my dual purpose. I love that there are others also looking for the perfect homesteading breed! I look forward to reading more of your journey!




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